Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wreck Diving in Coron

My main reason for heading to Palawan for the holidays, indeed, the main reason I returned to the Philippines and became a divemaster was to go to Coron to do some wreck diving. Most Filipinos go home for Christmas and my Koreans are pretty boring and claim to be poor so I was lucky to be able to actually have a travelling companion when Flager agreed to join me in Palawan. We met up on the flight to Busuanga (for the town of Coron) and checked in to some very simple accommodations for the next 5 days. Oh, I like this travel thing. It brought back so many good memories...
In Coron we also met Ida, a local couchsurfer, who was at home visiting her family for the break. We were very lucky to be invited to her family's place for the midnight dinner of Christmas Eve. I don't know, it's a new tradition for me. Actually, it's the first Christmas I've celebrated in 3 years. The last 2 were spent in non-Christian countries... Ida's great and we had a lot of fun hanging out with her and going to a local hot spring. Christmas and New Year's is also full of the sound firecrackers here as every kid old enough to light a match seems to have a full arsenal. I was just happy that they don't have the urge to throw them at me... Mostly it's just the simple bang variety but there are also large bottle rocket types too.
Coron is a very small town, on an island that is part of a group of small limestone islands north of the main island of Palawan. There isn't any beach to speak of though it is possible to do island hopping tours to find some small sections of beach. Most of the hilly islands seem fairly sparsely vegetated, and with sharp rock coming straight up out of the sea. It's not the jungles and beach thing. Despite that, Coron is quite popular and well know as a tourist destination because of it's diving. True, there is great diving all over the Philippines, including many other wreck sites but these ones are supposed to be some of the best in the world in terms of quality of the dive experience and accessibility I guess. I did a total of 6 dives over 2 days, 5 of which were on different wrecks.
The story on the wrecks is that during WW2, the Japanese navy had a large group of ships sheltering in the area and 2 air raids by the Americans over a 3 week period in Sept-Oct 1944 managed to sink quite a few. There are many ships not found or not developed as dive sites, but they do have about 10 ships easily accessible and regularly dived on. The deepest ship sits on the bottom at 41m while most of the others are in the 20-30m range, with a width/height of maybe 8-10m (significant when figuring your dive profile). Some of the smaller ones are in even shallower water and can actually breach the surface during low tide. Most of the ships are auxiliary naval cargo ships about 150m (500ft) in length but the first ship I dove on was a true warship, a sea-plane tender, with a large crane at the back for lifting seaplanes out of the water to load their carriers.
I can't really describe to you the feeling of diving down on your first wreck and seeing its image slowly take form in front of you as you descend on it. The visibility in Coron is not the best (due to the presence of a lot of oyster farms in the area) so a 150m ship seems huge when you have up to 10m visibility. I suppose I could romanticize it and say it's like at the beginning of the movie Titanic when they show the ship as it really appears at the bottom of the sea. It is a little like that though I suppose a passenger ship would be even more interesting than a cargo one. What makes these wreck dives even more exciting is that you can easily penetrate the ships. Many places have restrictions due to "sea grave" status or the ships are too dangerous to enter. Not so here. We had a small flashlight each and our little group (of 3 or 4) just followed the divemaster through the ship. After so long, they have been salvaged and everything removed that would be an obvious hazard thus the inside is mostly a dark empty shell covered with crusty coral (that cuts your hands). We did get into the engine rooms and sometimes the bridge and there are a lot of small, tight squeezes where you literally have to rub your stomach on the ground to make sure your tank can clear the top. A bit disorienting to think that you are inside the ship and it's laying on it's side too (most, but not all are capsized). As most of you know, ships tend to have narrow passageways, small doors and tight corners so imagine going through them sideways, while swimming through coral obstacles hoping you don't accidentally get your regulator pulled out of your mouth. Ah, but to look out from the inside at a school of fish, that's something special.... You have to be a lot more careful though about the dive than with a normal coral dive as you tend to stay down on the bottom longer where the ship is and we had to do a decompression on our 2nd dive on the 2nd day (my first deco dive). I do like seeing fish and coral though so wreck diving isn't the best although anywhere that gets a little light on the ship (especially the outer upper surface) will grow into an artificial coral reef over time.
So that was 5 of the dives and they were great, but the 6th was even stranger. It's a dive into Barracuda Lake, which is even more unique. Barracuda lake is a small, lake/hot spring on Coron island (which is across from Coron town, which is situated on Busuanga island, go figure). At the surface it is fresh water. If you go down 10m or so it becomes salt water. At the surface the water is about 28C but if you go down 20m or so it goes up to 41C after passing through an intermediate temperature layer. The thermo and halocline are quite distinct and sudden rather than gradual. You can feel the difference with your hand as you pass it down in front of you. But each layer has it's own visibility I guess, because if you try to look through a layer, say at another diver, they are fuzzy. I did the whole dive constantly thinking I needed to get my eyes checked out because my vision was so blurred. But it was still cool. I don't know how far down it goes. It seems like a bottomless pit with the sides sloping down into the heat. The ground is also a very thick layer of gooey mud which you can sink your arm or whatever into, and somehow it comes back out clean. I can't really describe it but it was strange. I was also surprised to see some fish swimming around though the most fun were the 3 inch long cleaner shrimp that would dance on your hand.
Ok, as you can imagine I had a great time in Coron and I was quite saddened to have to leave. In fact, had I known how things were going to go, I would probably have rearranged my trip and schedule differently. There is something very limiting and frustrating about having short holidays and actually being on a schedule. I'll have to try to avoid travelling that way in the future, haha.


At 11:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon,
Loved the vidoe, looked like alot of fun, and as you said noisy! They look polynesian with the outfits and the facial structures, as much as short africans.
So do you ever get used to being a freak? so tall, white, and living there? So inquiring minds want to know, who is Ida, is she your Valentine? would you consider her your"girl", come on dish the dirt, we all want to see you fall for a girl there.
I can't wait too hear your description of the Easter entertainment, y'know when they nail some poor bugger to a cross.

Be Safe, and take care
Big Bear Hugs
The Bear


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